He couldn’t take it any more. He was a nationally-known American rabbi who had publicly supported the Israeli government, despite his doubts about the wisdom or morality of its policies. He had backed its initial military response to attacks by non-state actors on Israeli citizens. But as time wore on, he could not find a way to rationalize or justify the IDF’s willingness to pummel civilian neighborhoods with bombs and mortar shells. Eventually, he reached a point where the Israelis’ callous disregard for Palestinian lives prompted him to speak out. He said, in an angry interview:
I fear that our past public support of the government of Israel, no matter its policy and no matter our reservation, was used by the Israelis to project a world Jewish community completely in accord with its goal and methods. We were used like cows. We were milked, both for moral and financial supportâ€”and for the influence we could bring to bear on Washingtonâ€”and when we were used up we were put out to pasture. Yes it is fair to say we were treated with contempt, and we’ve gone along willingly. But weâ€™ve crossed a watershed now, and our open criticism will continue and increase.
The angry rabbi was not a left wing opponent of Israel’s recent assault on the Gaza Strip. He was Alexander Schindler, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism), the largest synagogue movement in the U.S. The interview was in New York Magazine, in the October 19th, 1982 issue. He was talking about Israel’s war against the PLO in Lebanon.
Every major American Jewish organization supported Israel’s initial invasion of Lebanon 27 years ago. The expressed Israeli goal was to stop the PLO from firing rockets into northern Israel. It seemed to be limited and quite sensible. American Jewish leaders were initially told that Israel wanted to create a cordon sanitaire in order to keep Israeli civilians out of harm’s way.
But, under Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israelis took the battle much further, all the way to Beirut. Within a few weeks, it was clear that one of the goals was to rout the PLO and kick them out of Lebanon. The Israelis laid siege to West Beirut for weeks, shelled and bombed the city, cut off its food, water and electricity. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed. Later, after the war, still another goal surfaced, one that was abstract and murky: Sharon had hoped that the collapse of the PLO would force Jordan to assume responsibility for West Bank Palestinians.
American Jews were used like cows back then. What about more recently, during the war in Gaza?
There are a great many differences between the circumstances of the two wars, too many to point out without a lengthy analysis. One difference worth mentioning,though, is that Schindler was hardly the only major American Jewish leader to speak out back then. In his book, Irreconcilable Differences, Stephen Rosenthal devotes a whole chapter to public American Jewish dissent against the first Israeli war in Lebanon. (I also touch upon this in my forthcoming book). Some of the opponents, like Schindler, were mainstream heavyweights who had accepted Israel’s initial explanations for invading Lebanon, then decided that they could not endorse Sharon’s real objectives. This time, of course, the heavyweights have kept silent.
But there was one important similarity:
At the outset of the Gaza war, I–like thousands of other American Jews with ties to Israel–received a flurry of email messages, bulletins and reports of conference calls with Israeli diplomats. I was assured that the goal of Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza was to protect the people of southern Israel from rocket fire. I was told that Israel was simply trying to destroy the Hamas infrastructure that supported the rocket fire. The goal seemed to be limited.
But the declared goals kept changing, as I noted in a furious post a few days after the war started. Eventually, it became clear that I was being asked to defend an operation whose real goal was to send a message, to show Hamas and the Palestinians under its rule that the Israelis would not hesitate to behave like unpredictable madmen if the rocket fire on southern Israel continued. As Ethan Bronner put it, “The Israeli theory of what it tried to do here is summed up in a Hebrew phrase heard across Israel and throughout the military in the past weeks: `baal habayit hishtageya,‘ or `the boss has lost it.'”
The price of this feigned madness was the death of hundreds of innocent people and the maiming of many more, all in the name of the abstract and murky goal of “deterrence.”